The Englewood Review of Books
Best Books of 2020
Hardback: FSG Books, 2020
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I believe this novel, in fact, represents a sort of culmination of Robinson’s fictional explorations, or at least those that have been present in the Gilead series. For it seems to me that this particular story’s been lying in the background the whole time, unwritten yet resting in Robinson’s imagination, informing what she had to say in the other books but also swelling in her mind to encompass those other books’ deeper intuitions and emotional keys. Jack shows us where the arc of Robinson’s literary and theological ideas has been tending, while also ratifying one of her central convictions – that a modern, non-theological culture tends to over-simplify both human consciousness and the vagaries of the human conscience. If I’m right about this, it also leads me to the conclusion that the perplexing Jack Boughton has been the central character in the Gilead series all along – a distant son of Adam who allows Robinson to directly explore her most fundamental ideas about the hidden-glory-amidst-fallenness of humanity itself.
Perhaps surprisingly, another major literary allusion that runs through Jack is to William Carlos Williams’s long Modernist poem, Paterson, which chronicles the fragmented lives of Americans living along another American urban river. Paterson, with its intense focus on the particularities of the local, is also intentionally emblematic of the singularity of the American experience amidst the (older) cultures of the world. Nothing, of course, is more particular to the American experience than its history of racial subjugation, perpetuated over centuries in a country ostensibly committed to freedom and equality for all. Fortunately for us, though, Robinson’s deep humanism enables her to limn the profound commonalities of mind and soul that exist between human beings of different races whom society strives to keep separate; and in throwing such deep commonalities into bold relief, Robinson gives us hope for our present cultural moment. Indeed, a delicate love story between a black woman and a white man, set in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century and displaying the astonishingly rich and complex humanity of each of its protagonists, might be exactly the novel we need right now.
- From our review by Michael VanDyke
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